How much disintegration can a culture endure before it reaches the point of irreversible decay? The degree of disintegration and destruction that our own culture has experienced is probably not yet fully known, but mid-to late-Nineteenth Century Russian culture is another matter.
The vicious nature of the attacks upon the "old forms" of Russian culture, especially those waged by the Nihilists of the late 1860s, provides ample material for exploring this important question. Fortunately, for those anxious about the condition of our own culture, Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, "the most sagacious student of political economy in the Russia of the 1840s,"1 kept his hand to the pulse of Russia's intelligentsia. Dostoevsky's preoccupation with that same question is understandable given the exigencies of Russian life in his time. When, in l861, the "Tsar-Emancipator," Alexander II, liberated the serfs, pent-up forces for social change were unleashed. In Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation; 1860-65, 2 Joseph Frank notes:
All the ideals on which previous Russian life had been founded were called into question; influential voices were heard proclaiming that an entirely new moral basis must be sought on which to construct human society. Russian culture thus entered an acute phase of crisis."
According to Professor Frank, the scenario described above is the "indispensable context within which the works of Dostoevsky must be understood."
Utopian Socialism, popular among the intelligentsia in the early l840s, was grounded in Christian social-moral ideals. By the mid-40s, however, the Christian elements were discounted and replaced with principles more consistent with Naturalism--science and reason.
By the time Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs in l861, a new generation of liberals had evolved by following the tenets of scientific materialism. This new generation of Russian intelligentsia were radicals known as the raznochintsy. The raznochintsy differed from the Socialists of the l840s in two ways; they were more frustrated and more activist. The most frustrated and activist elements of theraznochintsy eventually broke with their counterparts--these were the Nihilists. The Nihilists were the focal point of Dostoevsky's later work and, for that matter, much of the social-cultural work of the late 1860s.
Dostoevsky's three great novels, Crime and Punishment, the Possessed, and the Brothers Karamazov, represent a continuum. That is, in those works, Dostoevsky traces the degenerative effects on the Russian psyche of the doctrines of radical and Nihilistic idealogues by beginning with a psychoanalytic study of one solitary man and then chronicles the movement of that crisis from the intelligentsia outward to the masses.